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October 23, 2012

Iran vs. Israel: Countdown to Showdonw

By Russ Winter 

The showdown between Iran and Israel over Iran’s production of enriched uranium is coming to a crescendo.

Reports indicate that Iran is in the process of producing weapons-grade uranium. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rightly been urging the U.S. and United Nations to give Iran a red line not to cross in its uranium enrichment — that line being someplace between medium enrichment and high enrichment, or HEU, needed for weapons. That red line and the timeline have become a key issues.

During Netanyahu’s visit to the UN in late September, he said: “By next spring, or at most next summer at the current enrichment rate, they (Iran) will have finished the medium enrichment (20 percent) and move on to the final stage. From there it is only a few months, and possibly a few weeks to the first bomb.”

Over the weekend, France’s foreign minister offered his assessment of the situation. Paris AP reports: “France’s foreign minister says Iran appears on track to reach the ability to produce a nuclear weapon by the first half of next year. Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told Europe-1 radio Sunday that unspecified experts ‘have established in an absolutely indisputable way’ that Iran has compiled a full array of centrifuges that ‘apparently will allow the ability to go toward possession of the nuclear weapon by the first half of next year, the end of the first half.’”

Vice President Joe Biden during the VP debate  pushed the red line out much further than Israel. He revealed that attitude of the administration, which is in effect gambling that once Iran has sufficient HEU, they won’t have a weapon to use with it. Then, Biden (between smirks and chuckles) said they are counting on superior intelligence gathering to know when Iran is “starting the process of building the weapon.” Waiting for the weapon would be a shockingly late response in this writer’s view.

The Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Disarmament discussed Biden’s comment:

Vice President Biden: “What Bibi held up there was when they get to the point where they can enrich uranium enough to put into a weapon, they don’t have a weapon to put it into.”

Wisconsin Project: Not quite. During his speech before the U.N. General Assembly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu argued that producing enriched uranium fuel for a nuclear weapon – not the weapons package itself – is Iran’s main challenge.

Iran already has access to an implosion bomb design and there is strong evidence, presented by the International Atomic Energy agency, that Iran has undertaken activities “relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device.” Activities described by the Agency include high explosives testing simulating a nuclear explosion, studies and experiments with an initiation system used in nuclear detonation, the development of specialized detonators used in nuclear weapons, and work on making and shaping high-enriched uranium metal components. Iran has excellent missile delivery capabilities, and a shot could easily be delivered at close range from Gaza or Lebanon.
Vice President Biden: “Both the Israelis and we know we’ll know if they [the Iranians] start the process of building a weapon.”

That might not be as easy as it sounds. Almost all weaponization work is laboratory scale, which is not easy to detect. An example is the Iraqi site of Al Atheer, a key nuclear weapon laboratory under Saddam Hussein’s regime. This site was unknown to U.S. intelligence and so was not bombed by the United States during the first Gulf War in the early 1990s. Following the war, international inspectors discovered it to be Iraq’s major facility for developing nuclear weapon components.

AEI chart on weapons:

So what we are now witnessing is a high stakes chess game, if Iran’s ultimate goal is a nuclear weapon. The real and in fact appropriate red-line trigger would be as soon as Iran starts processing medium enriched uranium (MEU) to highly enriched (HEU), weapons-grade uranium.  Then you can no longer claim you are merely working on building nuclear power plants in your country. The nations who would participate in a strike on an Iranian nuke site may be waiting for this timing — for irrefutable evidence — so that they can maintain a moral high ground.

Right now, Iran is supposedly running a UF6 to MEU operation. So then the questions become: How much HEU is needed for a bomb? Given Iran’s increased centrifuge capacity allowing them to speed up the enrichment process, how long will it really take to go from MEU to HEU, triggering the red line? Can this shift be detected in a timely manner?

Even if Iran sticks with building only its MEU inventory, the red line would have been moved up because Iran only needs 141 kg of MEU to enrich to HEU to make a traditional weapon. In reality a series of smaller 15 kg bombs would pack a huge punch.

AEI ran a  time table (see first chart) of Iran’s nuclear material development.  It states that Iran had an estimated 91.4 kg MEU on hand in August, verified during the last IAEA inspection. Natanz has been producing 4.5 kg a month. Fordow has been producing 9.9 kg a month using 696 first-generation IR-1 centrifuges.  Thus, in November, Iran would have more than 140 kg of MEU on hand from this output.  Other sources also give their projections on chart 2. All these sources predict Iran will have 16 to 25 kg of HEU by December and January.
However, Iran is also installing additional centrifuges in November at Fordow designed to quad-triple overall production rates (IAEA report August 30, 2012). That means not only will Iran have enough MEU for a smaller-implosion bomb by November, it could enrich the 140 kg MEU to HEU in 1.6 months.

Even if one were to use 200 kg as a higher necessary threshold to produce a bomb that would only add less than another a few weeks to the red line. Thus, the red line is much closer than anyone is letting on, as is Iran’s ability to produce a bomb.  The IAEA team is arriving in Iran today and will be conducting inspections through Nov. 11. After Iran stonewalls them and with the US elections past, you can expect this current “calm before the storm” to pass.

Given the down-to-the-wire nature of dealing with this,  and given the American people bad experience with the pretense for war in Iraq, it will be necessary to rapidly generate public support for action against Iran. A manufactured “crisis” is an effective tool, such as the sinking of the Maine in Havana Harbor leading to the Spanish-American War of 1898. Such a false-flag operation today might look something like this. Or perhaps bad economic conditions within Iran will drive that country to instigate something like a Pearl Harbor redux in the Persian Gulf.  Months of U.S. “financial recovery” propaganda would have to be undone rapidly in order to quickly garner public support for “crisis measures.” My guess is that given Iran’s soon possession of weapons grade uranium, we’ll probably witness  a major geopolitical event (involving Americans) before the end of the year.

About The Author - Russ Winter is a veteran investor, financial writer, world traveler, and he blogs at Winter Watch.  (EconMatters author archive here)

The views and opinions expressed herein are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of EconMatters.

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